What looks like an unusual giant orange metal canister, rising high above the windy and humid Alabama landscape, has some familiar design features.
“There’s a lot of heritage shuttle technology here,” said NASA engineer Mike Nichols.
But this canister is not intended to return the iconic fixed-wing, reusable space shuttle back into orbit, which was retired in 2011 — the last time NASA sent an astronaut into space from U.S. soil.
The celebrations marking the recent 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing were a reminder to the public that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, hasn’t been back to the moon since 1972, and is not currently sending astronauts into space from U.S. soil. The only way they can currently get to the International Space Station, or ISS, is by way of a Russia-launched Soyuz capsule.
If everything goes according to NASA’s plan, that’s all about to change. And what is taking shape inside large steel scaffolding today at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is an example of the core of a new Space Launch System, or SLS.
“The piece behind me is the liquid hydrogen tank,” explained Nichols, one of NASA’s lead engineers testing new rocket technology in Alabama. “In order to prove that it's strong enough to survive launch, they build this structural test article, send it to us, we install it in the test end. We do tests which involves using hydraulic cylinders to provide loading to it.”
NASA historian Brian Odom says the new liquid hydrogen tank is just one piece of the larger SLS system, which will launch astronauts in a newly designed “Orion” capsule into space.
“The work you see in the background,” Odom motions to another large metal canister, this one being serviced by workers on large lifts, “is for the liquid oxygen — the oxidizer for the SLS vehicle — to see if it's going to withstand those pressures, the intense dynamics at launch. And so, we’re making sure that our models are correct. And so far, everything is looking good,” He said.
“The Space Launch System is the only rocket capable of sending a fully equipped Orion, the astronauts, the supplies and the systems, to the moon in one launch, and taking us to deep space. So, the Space Launch System is the key enabler to going to the moon,” said Jody Singer, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Singer knows the clock is ticking in a new space race — this time with the Chinese — who also plan to land a crew on the moon in the next decade.
“I applaud them. I think it’s great. Why should we be upset because the Chinese are doing something? They are very, very good at what they do,” said astronaut Al Worden, who piloted the Endeavor Command Module during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission to the moon.
“I would have expected that we would be doing a lot more on the moon, that we would even be to Mars by now,” Worden told VOA at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center during Apollo 11 50th anniversary celebrations in the town known today as “Rocket City.”
As the U.S. gears up for another moon program, Worden believes NASA could partner with the Chinese to accomplish common goals.
“I think what we need to do is cooperate and do stuff with them, instead of looking at them arms-length and being a little standoffish about it. Because I think a cooperative program would be more efficient than the way it’s going right now.”
Engineer Mike Nichols says he and the large team at NASA trying to return astronauts to the moon are focused on delivering a modern, and more powerful rocket design that will potentially take them further than they have ever been before.
“It’s very easy to get lost in the day-to-day engineering stuff and forget that,” he told VOA under the towering orange liquid hydrogen tank, his voice breaking up a bit as he reflected on his own long career in the space industry.
“It’s pretty awesome to know that you are involved in this kind of stuff. I have worked for NASA for the better part of 20 years, spent numerous years as a contractor before that working on shuttle, hands-on flight hardware. We tested the shuttle engine that sent John Glenn back to space. It was pretty cool knowing that you were involved in that kind of stuff.”
Right now, NASA is not the only organization “involved in that kind of stuff.” Private companies such as Boeing and Space X are developing vehicles to take astronauts into Earth orbit and to the ISS, which Jody Singer says is allowing NASA to set its sights on new, grander and more difficult historic milestones.
“We’re all working very hard to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, and take what we learn and do it and apply to future missions, such as missions to Mars.”
The first new moon mission in the “Artemis” program is tentatively scheduled for next year, without a crew. Artemis 2 plans to send astronauts around the moon in 2022, with Artemis 3 touching down on the lunar south pole in 2024.
If the testing works out, all of the missions will begin their journey back to the moon or on to Mars on top of the new SLS system.